Mass Effect celebrates its ten-year anniversary this year with a brand new installement to the franchise. What better way to celebrate than to look back at ten years of Mass Effect?
04-03-2017 - by Iris Wijers
2017 not only marks the start of a new adventure in the Mass Effect universe. It also marks the 10th birthday of the franchise. While Mass Effect 1 was launched as an exclusive for the Xbox 360 system in 2007, its popularity quickly propelled it to PC, and later on to PS3. With a new game looming on the horizon, we look back at 10 years of Mass Effect. Already exicted for Mass Effect: Andromeda? You can order your copy for Xbox One right here at Startselect.
Mass Effect started its life as project SFX. Project director Casey Hudson envisioned a trilogy of games in an unknown, unnamed universe. Bioware had already made its first steps into space with Knights of the Old republic, and Hudson wanted Bioware to create ‘its own Star Wars’. Bioware’s Star Wars would become Mass Effect, but creating a whole universe takes time and a lot of creativity.
The original pitch for the project contained an enslaved human race and bat-like aliens. The pitch also mentioned an Xbox Live Trading system and a multiplayer system much like destiny. The game would also allow players to explore a whole galaxy. Many of the original ideas eventually turned out too ambitious and were scrapped when project SFX became Mass Effect. The idea of a trilogy of games set in an original universe where your choices matter and carry-over did make it to the final series. Mass Effect 1 was released in 2007, four years after the initial pitch.
We take a look at the history of the Mass Effect trilogy, both story-wise and gameplay-wise to decide what we like and what we don’t like about the game. Stay tuned for our look forward next week, in which we discuss the new installment in the series, Mass Effect: Andromeda, and what we want from this new game. Spoilers for Mass Effect incoming! (though you should really have played this trilogy by now).
Mass Effect 1 put us in the shoes of Shepard for the first time in a game that combines a third-person shooter with RPG elements. Players control Commander Shepard as they fight the robotic Geth, encounter relics of the lost Prothean civilization, defeat villain Saren and meet the looming threat of the reapers for the first time. The game was clearly planned as part of a trilogy: it introduces the danger of the Reapers, but at the end of the game they are still a very real threat, setting up the story for the next installments in the trilogy.
One of the things that made the first Mass Effect great was the effect your choices would have, not only on the first game, but on the games that would follow. One of the most harrowing choices the player must make early in Mass Effect 1 is to save either Ashley or Kaiden on Virmire, leaving the other to die in a bomb blast. The decision is already difficult, as the player has come to know both, and has perhaps experienced a budding romance with one, but gets even more harrowing when you know that you are essentially picking who will be with you for the following two games. Other important choices are also made: the player can for instance decide to kill Krogan powerhouse Wrex in the first game, which will not only lock him out as a squad member, but completely change the outcome of later missions in the third game. While not all choices turned out as impactful as was promised, Mass Effect 1 certainly advanced the genre forward with its focus on impactful choices.
Speaking of decisions: Mass Effect 1 gave us control not only over what our Shepard did, but to an extent over who they were. The paragon/renegade system allowed us to make our Shepard either a goody-two-shoes ‘no one gets left behind’ hero or a tough-as-nails ‘whatever it takes’ antihero. The system worked via dialogue choices and ‘interrupts’. The latter allowed Shepard to interrupt whoever was speaking to defend someone or, more often, punch them in the face. Who your Shepard was would also carry over to the later games and our control over it allowed us to connect with our Shepard on a deeper level.
While innovative and successful, Mass Effect1 1 certainly had its issues. While the original pitch included an open world where exploration was important, exploration in Mass Effect 1 was mostly frustratingly bouncing around the surface of a planet with the Mako. The side missions were also lackluster in Mass Effect 1 and combat often felt somewhat awkward. Despite this, the game received positive reviews and currently holds a metascore of 89, making for an excellent first installment in the Mass Effect trilogy.
Mass Effect 2 was released in 2012 and remains the highest rated game in the series to date with a metascore of 94. The game blew players away with the unexpected beginning. Literally, because Shepard gets blown up and dies at the start of the game. Shepard then gets resurrected by pro-human organization Cerberus and spends the game doing the bidding of a shadowy figure called the Illusive Man. While we meet the collectors during the main game and learn more about the reapers, reality is that at the end of ME2 we’re at the same point as we were one game earlier. The Reapers are coming, and we’re not ready. Good thing there’s one game left to save the galaxy in.
Mass Effect 2 in many way builds on the successful formula of Mass Effect 1, with some changes. The planet exploration from the first game is replaced by a probing system, with the Mako being sidelined this time. The paragon/renegade system makes a return and this time Shepard’s disposition is shown via their scars: renegade Shepards get red glowing scars, making them look particularly intimidating. The meaningful choices are also present in this installment of the trilogy, culminating in one of the tensest moments in the series: the suicide mission.
The suicide mission is the culmination of all efforts you made throughout the game. If you did everything right: everybody lives and it’s a triumphant moment. If, however, you’ve neglected to upgrade the ship, help your team members out and mess up the job assignments, the suicide mission turns into a brutal slaughter. Every single one of your squad mates can die and if you really mess up, Shepard will die as well. The squadmembers that die will not be around in Mass Effect 3 and if Shepard dies, you won't even be able to transfer your save to the next game. Yikes.
The possibility to lose your squad members is that much scarier because Mass Effect 2 expands on the relationship you can have with your squad members from Mass Effect 1. The personal missions in ME1 were limited and romance never got past a cheeky kiss in the hangar. Each squad mate in Mass Effect 2 comes with a personal mission to complete. Additionally, romance has expanded in ME2, enabling us to get closer to our squadmates in more than one way. While the story progression was somewhat lacking in Mass Effect 2, the personal aspect of the game was stronger than ever with a big part of the game focusing on meeting and getting to know your future squad members. This character-focused game certainly set a standard for RPG character progression in the industry and continues to influence other games in the franchise.
Mass Effect 3 was released as the final installment of the game and was tasked with picking up all the loose threads of the previous two games and tie them together in a satisfying conclusion. In the game, Shepard is tasked with convincing the different alien races to join the fight against the reapers and unite the galaxy against the threat. Many familiar faces feature in the game, provided they’ve not been shot in the face, blown up or carried off by space-bees during the earlier games, of course. There is something satisfying about navigating this galaxy full of friends.
While Mass Effect 3 shows the actions of your choices throughout the game, the ending to the game is hated by many. The reason for this is that the game ultimately fails to deliver on the premise of ‘your decisions matter’, reducing three games of choices to a single multiple choice of destroy, synthesis or control. If you really hate this, you can also refuse to choose, blowing up the galaxy as a result. Slight overreaction, Shepard.
Mass Effect 3 keeps many of the elements from the earlier games, such as the combat system and the alignment system. Planatory exploration doesn’t feature in this game much and is like much Mass Effect 2's probing system. The game is more plot-focused than the second installment and does not feature the loyalty missions, meaning we do not get to know new squad member James Vega as well as we do our older companions. This is not a big issue though, as most of the squad members are old friends from the previous games we're already close to. Additionally, less focus on character development does not mean the game is not emotionally loaded: the game reunites us with old friends, but also makes us lose them again, sometimes in ways we are powerless to stop. Raise your hand if you cried over Mordin.
The bond we have with our squad members becomes even more poignantly clear in the Citadel DLC: a piece of DLC that is largely focused on Shepard bonding with their crew. Have a dance with Garrus, get drunk with Ashley, practice combat with Jack and finally give poor Thane a proper sendoff. A large part of the DLC focusing on hosting a party for your party of alien squad members probably should not work, but it does. The fact that the Citadel DLC works as well as it does, is a testament to the characters Bioware has created in this game and the bonds players form with them.
While Mass Effect 3 has divided critics and players, holding a 89 and 55 score respectively, the Mass Effect games have certainly set precedents of storytelling and character-building for the genre. Now, it’s time to move on from the Milky Way and venture forth as we take a look at what to expect from Mass Effect: Andromeda next week. Are you joining us?